Helsinki: Neutral ground with a Cold War history

US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, on July 16, 2018. Finland shares a 1,340km border with Russia and has served as neutral ground for meetings between US and Russian leaders.
US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, on July 16, 2018. Finland shares a 1,340km border with Russia and has served as neutral ground for meetings between US and Russian leaders.PHOTO: NYTIMES

HELSINKI • The choice of Helsinki for the first summit between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin is a reminder of the Finnish capital's Cold War history when it hosted a number of key tete-a-tetes.

Finland shares a 1,340km border with Russia, and has long chafed at its neighbour's dominance.

A hotbed of spies during the Cold War, Helsinki lies just three hours by train from St Petersburg and one hour by plane from three Baltic states that are Nato members.

As a result, it has served as neutral ground for meetings between US and Soviet or Russian leaders.

"Finland was an in-between country in the Cold War era... It wanted to form this bridge and stressed its neutrality in its relations with the superpowers," said Ms Teija Tiilikainen, director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

On Aug 1, 1975, the Helsinki Accords were signed by then US President Gerald Ford and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

The document stipulated that the two powers would respect the 1945 borders drawn up for Europe by wartime leaders Franklin D. Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill in Yalta.

In 1990, one year before the fall of the Soviet Union, Finland organised the last USSR-US summit, hosting leaders George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev.

The last big meeting between a US and Russian president in Helsinki was in 1997, when Mr Bill Clinton held talks with Mr Boris Yeltsin.

That summit led to progress in arms control and Nato's embrace of former Soviet bloc nations.

 
 
 
 

During the Cold War, Finland was careful to refrain from any open criticism of Moscow in a practice that came to be known as "Finlandisation". But the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 changed everything, with Finland moving quickly to forge closer ties with the West, joining the European Union in 1995.

And while it is not a member of Nato, it enjoys close ties with the alliance and became a member of its Partnership for Peace programme in 1994.

Last year, Helsinki published a report underlining "the special status" of its bilateral defence ties with Sweden, and referred to the United States as an "important partner" at a time when "military tensions have increased in the Baltic Sea region".

But Russia is Finland's fifth biggest trading partner and the Nordic country treads a careful line with its powerful eastern neighbour.

"Finland has a fairly good relationship with the Russians in the current situation," said Mr Juhana Aunesluoma, director of the Centre for European Studies at Helsinki University. "Finland has also a close relationship with the United States, much closer than it used to have," he said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 17, 2018, with the headline 'Helsinki: Neutral ground with a Cold War history'. Print Edition | Subscribe